I love our Gospel reading. Our reading reminds us just how mysterious Jesus was to his contemporaries, including even his closest followers.
This is, after all, not the kind of question an ordinary person would ask. If I asked you who people said that I am, my guess is, you would be puzzled. If I asked who you say that I am, I suspect you would be worried. The question doesn’t make sense because there is no great mystery to my identity. There is nothing to talk about.
Or so it seems. More on that in a bit.
For Jesus, the question is not nearly as strange as it would be for me. Clearly Jesus wasn’t just an ordinary human being. Jesus taught with too much authority. Jesus’ miracles were too impressive. The crowds who heard and saw Jesus were so filled with awe that they didn’t know what to make of him. I picture them asking the disciples, “Who is he?” To which I assume the disciples replied, “we don’t have any idea. We’re just following him until we find out.”
Occasionally the disciples would talk about Jesus amongst themselves. After they watched Jesus still a storm, for example, they asked each other, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him” (8:27)? But they didn’t come up with an answer. And they didn’t ask Jesus himself, which I get. It would be a little weird to ask a man you know well, a man with whom you spend literally all of your time, “Exactly who are you?”
So the disciples wondered, and speculated, and hoped that it would all make sense eventually.
Finally in our passage Jesus asks the question that was agitating them. Jesus starts easy. “Who do others say that I am?”
Of course, the question is a little awkward. Not everyone admired Jesus. The disciples could have answered that the scribes and the Pharisees think you are a blasphemer. They could have answered that Jesus’ own family worried he had gone crazy.
But the disciples wisely focus on the positive. People, they say, think you, Jesus, are one of the prophets, maybe John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah.
Their answer doesn’t really make sense. But that’s OK because Jesus is not really interested in what the crowds think. Jesus brings the question home. How about you? Who do you say that I am?
As I picture this scene, an awkward pause follows. The disciples don’t know the right answer. What they do know is that Peter will eventually blurt something out because Peter always does.
Finally Peter does blurt it out. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And for once, Peter has it right. That may have been the most surprising thing to happen that day!
But what particularly strikes me in our passage is what comes next. After Peter identifies who Jesus is, Jesus identifies who Peter is.
Peter’s real name was Simon. But in this passage, Jesus gives Simon the nickname of Peter, and that’s how Christians have known him ever since.
But there is more to it than just the name. This passage is obviously about who Jesus is. But it is also about who Peter is, and by extension about who Christ’s followers more generally are, about who we are.
When we look at Jesus, we see God incarnate. When we look at Jesus we also see a perfect human being. That means, looking at Jesus is looking at a picture of how we are supposed to look, a picture of how we would look but for sin.
Looking at Jesus is like looking at one of those funny mirrors at a county fair, the ones that distort your body, the ones that make you really tall and thin or really short and fat. Except this mirror, Jesus, distorts our bodies to make them look much better than they otherwise would. This mirror, Jesus, shows us how we want to look. Or, maybe better, this mirror, Jesus, shows us how we do look, in God’s eyes, thanks to the redemption of Jesus Christ.
What we say about Jesus is, in some sense, also a comment on who we are, or at least who we are called to be in Christ. So what does that mean?
In our passage, Peter rightly calls Jesus the Messiah, meaning the original Messiah, the true Messiah. But the word “messiah” literally means anointed by God. Well, every one of us who has been baptized or confirmed has been anointed. Anointing is a standard part of the baptismal and confirmation services. Even those of us who have not been anointed with holy oil may have been touched by the Holy Spirit, which is also called an anointing.
So Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. But we who follow Jesus, who have also been anointed, are like baby messiahs. Jesus is the Christ, which is just another word for Messiah. And we are Christians.
The same is true for the other thing Peter says about Jesus. Peter calls Jesus the Son of God, meaning the real Son of God, the Son of God by nature. But we, too, are children of God, thanks to Jesus. We are God’s children by adoption.
Come back to the whimsical question with which I began. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? It’s not such an absurd question as it might at first appear.
People in Jesus’ day mostly didn’t recognize him as the Messiah and the Son of God. And yet that is who he was.
And people in our day may not recognize who we are. We may not even recognize ourselves.
But the truth is, beneath my mild-mannered exterior, I am anointed by God. I am God’s beloved child.
And, of course, so are you. So is everyone we come in contact with.
Think about how life would be if we all remembered that all the time.
People are rarely rude to me even when they are mad at me or when they have to straighten me out. I realized that people are not normally rude to me a couple of years ago when a woman startled me by being truly rude to me on the phone. I didn’t know how to react. All I could think was, people don’t treat me this way.
I wish I had been quick-witted enough on that call to ask this woman the question of our passage. Who do you think I am? And, before she had a chance to answer, to tell her that I am God’s beloved child, that’s who. So maybe you should be a little nicer to me.
I wasn’t bold enough to say much of anything to the woman. But over the next few weeks, I thought plenty of mean things about her. Clearly I needed to ask myself the question in our passage, too. Who do I think she was? And the answer, unfortunately!, is, another one of God’s beloved children.
So here is what I invite you all to do this week. Reflect on the question in our passage. Take a minute, maybe looking in a mirror, to ponder the fact that you are God’s beloved and anointed child. Then take a minute to think about someone who really irritates you, and ponder the fact that he or she is also God’s beloved and anointed child.
It’s a small thing. But if enough of us did that, we could change the world. My prayer for us is that we will make a start. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan